WASHINGTON — A member of the US House Armed Services Committee is calling on the Pentagon to tell Congress whether US Navy vessels and crew seized by Iran allowed sensitive American equipment that may have been aboard to be exploited.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former US Marine and Iraq War veteran, said Iran — a "terrorist-sponsoring" existential threat to the US — accessed US cryptographic and satellite communications, sensors, and jammers Hunter believes were aboard the two Navy patrol boats.
"We'd be stupid to think that they didn't," said Hunter, R-Calif. "I'm glad that the sailors are back safe, but there's no way [the Iranian military] just let those boats sit there, and didn't reverse engineer, or look at and copy everything that they possibly could."
Wednesday morning, Iran released 10 American sailors unharmed whose riverine boats drifted near Iranian waters, ending nearly 16 hours of tense negotiations.
The release was announced by Iran and by the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. The sailors departed Farsi Island at 11:45 a.m. local time aboard the riverine command boats they were captured in. They were later picked up by a military aircraft, according to the release, and other sailors took the RCBs to Bahrain, the original destination.
Iran had accused the sailors of "snooping" on their activities at Iran's Farsi Island in the Arabian Gulf, which is a base of Iran's elite paramilitary force where the 10 sailors were held overnight.
The Iranians reportedly seized the GPS equipment on the riverine command boats, a 49-foot-long jet-propelled attack craft that can speed up to 43 knots and that boasts sensitive communications gear for use as a command vessel. The boats were at least equipped with a FLIR infrared system when the Navy first adopted the platform.
A US defense official, speaking on background, said there was no indication of sensitive equipment on the two craft.
Hunter acknowledged he had no specific knowledge of what happened in the incident, but was he said he was assuming both that the vessels were equipped with high-tech gear and the action Iranians would take in such seizure.
"That's what I would do, that's what we would do, that's what Russia would do, that's what China would do, that's what anybody would do," Hunter said. "To assume otherwise would be naive."
The Defense Department must inform Congress, or at least the relevant committees in a closed session, what equipment Iran had access to, what it enables Iran to do militarily, and what countermeasures the US military plans to take to keep safe its troops operating in the area, he said.
"What do we need to do to operate in that environment with the Iranians knowing and having all the stuff they had on those boats," Hunter said. "The riverine boats that I saw on the news — and who knows if those are the exact same — but those are highly equipped vessels."
There is a precedent for Iran reverse-engineering captured US technology. In 2011, Iranian officials said they would dissect and recreate a crashed RQ-170 Sentinel, a subsonic, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft built by Lockheed Martin and operated in this case by the CIA.
Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said the two 50-foot patrol boats were unlikely to have contained sophisticated surveillance gear or high-tech weapons. He believed the crews would have had standard Navy radio gear — classified equipment sailors are supposed to dump overboard in the event of a capture, first erasing the radios' classified software codes at the flick of a switch.
"This is not a spy boat," Harmer said of the RCBs.
Harmer said he was more concerned with the "professional competence of the US Navy" crew, which either navigated improperly or used a flawed transit plan. For their trip to Bahrain, he said, they should have been hugging coastlines and not traversing open water.
"Somebody will have to answer for why this 50-foot vessel was transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain … in open water," Harmer said. "You especially ought to be hugging coastline when you know the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy is just waiting for the US Navy to make a mistake, which we gift-wrapped for them."
One explanation may be that these Rriverine Ccommand Bboats, while originally used in shallow-water and tropic environments, were repurposed for open-sea patrol when they joined the 5th Fleet.
Iran’s semiofficial news agency says said the sailors were detained Tuesday after straying into Iranian waters in the Arabian Gulf.
The sailors were held overnight on Farsi Island, a base for the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC said Wednesday that "it has released the US marines and their vessels in international waters," as quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency.
"Following technical and operational investigations and in interaction with relevant political and national security bodies of the country and after it became clear that the US combat vessels' illegal entry into the Islamic Republic of Iran's waters was the result of an unpurposeful action and a mistake and after they extended an apology, the decision was made to release them," the IRGC statement continued.
A video released Wednesday by the Fars news agency appears to show the 10 sailors surrendering, as they knelt on the deck of the riverine boats, hands on their heads. The riverine command boats were docked at a pier on Farsi Island, where Iranian officials scoured the high-tech vessels for secrets. They found a binder of riverine forces checklists and took shots of the crew cockpit.
The sailors appear to have been detained in a white-walled room, where they rested on the carpet with pillows as they awaited their release.
Overnight, the BBC reported that Iran demanded an apology from the US for invading its territorial waters and that the US obliged. But a spokesman for the US State Department pushed back, saying there was no truth to the rumor that Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to Iran.
"I want to personally thank Secretary of State John Kerry for his diplomatic engagement with Iran to secure our sailors' swift return," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement Wednesday today. "Around the world, the US Navy routinely provides assistance to foreign sailors in distress, and we appreciate the timely way in which this situation was resolved."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.